Wes Henderson, Angels Share Brands chief innovation officer and co-founder

Wes Henderson, Angel's Share Brands' chief innovation officer and co-founder

?Bacardi has entered the Bourbon market, following its purchase of Angel's Share Brands and its Louisville Distilling Co subsidiary this week. just-drinks spoke to the company's co-founder and chief innovation officer, Wes Henderson, about future plans, Bourbon consolidation and why some companies may be going too far in flavour innovation.?

"They're very happy right now," says Angel's Share Brands' Wes Henderson of the private investors who put forward his company's original seed money back in 2011.

That's no surprise, considering Henderson's company, which owns the Angel Envy Bourbon and rye brands was sold this week to Bacardi after just four years of trading. "That's a good short-term investment, no matter how you look at it," Henderson says.

Bacardi will be celebrating, too, and not only because it was one of those original investors. The company that is best known for its namesake white rum brand has entered the fast-growing Bourbon category with the purchase of a company that has gone from selling 36,000 litres in its first year to 405,000 last year. This year, it expects to shift more than 600,000 litres, while next year it will open a new Angel's Envy distillery and visitor centre in downtown Louisville.

There's also a touch of Bourbon royalty to Angel's Envy. Its creator was Lincoln Henderson, who spent 30 years at Brown-Forman and helped create the Gentleman Jack and Woodford Reserve brands, among others. Lincoln, who died in 2011, was also Wes's father, and his grandsons are now involved in the new venture.

So, is this a good deal for Bacardi? Possibly, but the company, which is privately-held, isn't disclosing how much it paid. Henderson, meanwhile, has his own reasons for staying quiet.

"I'm from the south and southern gentlemen don't like to talk about money," he tells just-drinks in a phone interview this week.

just-drinks: Why did you decide to sell to Bacardi?

Wes Henderson: The company has been with us from the start and we started talking a couple of months ago about where the business was, and where Bacardi was. We felt that it made sense to start having serious discussions about taking the next step. Two-months later, it's a done deal.

j-d: You are their first Bourbon, so you must have something beyond what else is out there?

WH: We have a brand that is deeply rooted with our consumers, that's very innovative and with a strong family history. But, (Bacardi) haven’t only seen what we've done but what we've got planned for the future, and that's to continue to innovate. If you look at other small brands, we are way ahead of the curve.

I just think we're the whole package. We have an incredible marketing team, a great production team. We are very innovative, with excellent distributor relationships. And, when you put all those things together, I think that's what puts us ahead of the pack.

j-d: Will you stick with your core brands? Are there any new innovations in the pipeline?

WH: Oh, there's always a new innovation out there. I've got something in front of me right now I wish I could talk about. We've got things we're working on that are phenomenal - it's just about picking the right time to bring them to market.

j-d: In terms of innovation, what direction should the Bourbon industry be going in?

WH: I'm not real comfortable with playing in the same sandbox as these flavoured products. I really believe you're pushing the envelope past where we should be pushing it. There are just a few families that make the majority of the Bourbon. What comes with that is a responsibility to preserve the history of Bourbon.

It also gives you artistic licence to play around with it, but some of the stuff I'm seeing out there, without naming names, takes it too far. And it takes it too far in the name of bringing more people into the category.

Some people might say that about our barrel finishes (Angel's Envy's range includes a Port-finished Bourbon). I think that is traditional - you see it in the Scotch market, for example. We are in line with tradition but are also innovating.

j-d: Your Bourbons sell for about US$45 a bottle. What is your target market?

WH: It gets more difficult every day because Bourbon is exploding and, in terms of demographics, it's like trying to hit a moving target. The age range is expanding, the disparity between males and females is shrinking. So, there's a much wider range. But we skew on the older threshold than the other companies, so much is driven by price.

j-d: Do you plan to launch internationally?

WH: We haven't dipped our toe in that pond yet. We don't have a ton of Bourbon lying around, so we felt it best to serve the market we're in right now (the US). As capacity increases, we'll take a look at international distribution as well.

j-d: Will there be more consolidation in Bourbon?

WH: I don't know if there's a lot out there that fits the bill. There are a few craft brands that I think are fantastic and may one day be an acquisition target, but they have to reach a certain volume threshold before they are attractive.

j-d: What can the small producers teach the big companies about innovation?

WH: My father worked in a major company for 40 years and he had so many tools to use and worked with so many great people. I don't think we have anything to teach, and I think we will learn a lot.